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The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy - The Atlantic
"The main source of meaning in American life is a meritocratic competition that makes those who struggle feel inferior."



"What is happening to America’s white working class?

The group’s important, and perhaps decisive, role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism, and, on the other, its various economic woes. While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote, was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”

That cuts right to it. The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.

This system of categorizing Americans—the logical extension of life in what can be called an extreme meritocracy—can be pernicious: The culture holds up those who succeed as examples, however anecdotal, that everyone can make it in America. Meanwhile, those who fail attract disdain and indifference from the better-off, their low status all the more painful because it is regarded as deserved. As research has shown, well-educated white-collar workers also sink into despair if they cannot find a new job, but among the working class, the shame of low status afflicts not just the unemployed, but also the underemployed. Their days are no longer filled with the dignified, if exhausting, work of making real things. Rather, the economy requires—as a white former factory worker I talked to described it—“throwing on a goofy hat,” dealing with surly customers who are themselves just scraping by, and enduring a precarious working life of arbitrary rules and dead-end prospects.

And the work people do (or don’t do) affects their self-esteem. When I was talking to laid-off autoworkers in Michigan for my book about long-term unemployment, I met a black man in Detroit who told me his job at the plant had helped heal a wound—one going back to his parents’ choice, when he was a baby, to abandon him. (As is standard in sociological research, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) “My job was like my mother and father to me,” he said. “It’s all I had, you know?” Then the plant shut down. Now in his 50s, he was back on the job market, scrambling for one of the few good jobs left for someone without a college degree. In his moments of weakness, he berated himself. He should have prepared more. He should have gotten an education. “It’s all my fault,” he said—the company was just doing what made business sense.

For less educated workers (of all races) who have struggled for months or years to get another job, failure is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame. Without the right markers of merit—a diploma, marketable skills, a good job—they are “scrubs” who don’t deserve romantic partners, “takers” living parasitically off the government, “losers” who won’t amount to anything. Even those who consider themselves lucky to have jobs can feel a sense of despair, seeing how poorly they stand relative to others, or how much their communities have unraveled, or how dim their children’s future seems to be: Research shows that people judge how well they’re doing through constant comparisons, and by these personal metrics they are hurting, whatever the national unemployment rate may be.

When faced with these circumstances, members of the working class often turn inward. I witnessed this coping mechanism among the workers I got to know in Michigan. One of them, a white former autoworker, lost her home and had to move to a crime-infested neighborhood, where she had a front-row view of the nightly drug deals and fistfights. “I just am not used to that anymore,” said the woman, who grew up in poverty. “I want out of here so bad.” Interestingly, she dismissed any sort of collective solution to the economic misery that she and others like her now confront. For instance, she had no kind words to say about the union at her old plant, which she blamed for protecting lousy workers. She was also outraged by what she called the “black favoritism” at her Detroit plant, whose union leadership included many African Americans.

This go-it-alone mentality works against the ways that, historically, workers have improved their lot. It encourages workers to see unions and government as flawed institutions that coddle the undeserving, rather than as useful, if imperfect, means of raising the relative prospects of all workers. It also makes it more likely that white workers will direct their frustration toward racial and ethnic minorities, economic scapegoats who are dismissed as freeloaders unworthy of help—in a recent survey, 64 percent of Trump voters (not all of whom, of course, are part of the white working class) agreed that “average Americans” had gotten less than they deserved, but this figure dropped to 12 percent when that phrase was replaced with “blacks.” (Among Clinton voters, the figure stayed steady at 57 percent for both phrases.) This is one reason that enacting good policies is, while important, not enough to address economic inequality. What’s needed as well is a broader revision of a culture that makes those who struggle feel like losers.

One explanation for why so many come to that conclusion in the first place has to do with the widening of the gulf between America’s coasts and the region in between them. Cities that can entice well-educated professionals are booming, even as “flyover” communities have largely seen good-paying factory work automated or shipped overseas, replaced to a large extent with insecure jobs: Walmart greeters, independent-contractor truck drivers, and the like. It is easy to see why white voters from hard-hit rural areas and hollowed-out industrial towns have turned away from a Democratic Party that has offered them little in the way of hope and inspiration and much in the way of disdain and blame.

It should here be emphasized that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia played a major role in the election, helping whip up more support for Trump—as well as suppress support for Clinton—among the white working class. To be sure, those traits are well represented among other groups, however savvier they are about not admitting it to journalists and pollsters (or to themselves). But the white working class that emerged in the 19th century—stitched together from long-combative European ethnic groups—strived to set themselves apart from African Americans, Chinese, and other vilified “indispensable enemies,” and build, by contrast (at least in their view), a sense of workingman pride. Even if it’s unfair to wholly dismiss the white working class’s cultural politics as reactionary and bigoted, this last election was a reminder that white male resentment of “nasty” women and “uppity” racial and other minorities remains strong.

That said, many Americans with more stable, better-paid jobs have blind spots of their own. For all of their professed open-mindedness in other areas, millions of the well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value. More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America—the sort of white-picket-fence fantasy that drives people well into their elder years to head back to school. But such a fervent belief in the transformative power of education also implies that a lack of it amounts to personal failure—being a “stupid” person, as one of the white Michigan workers I talked to put it. In today’s labor market, it is no longer enough to work hard, another worker, who was black, told me: “It used to be you come up and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a strong back,’ and all that,” but nowadays a “strong back don’t mean shit. You gotta have dedication and you’ve gotta have some kind of smartness, or something.”



"One possible answer to the question Harrington posed about how to ease his own generation’s populist rage is the notion of grace—a stance that puts forward values that go beyond the “negatives” of the narrow secular creed and connect with individuals of diverse political viewpoints, including those hungry for more in the way of meaning than the meritocratic race affords. It moves people past the hectoring that so alienates the white working class—and, to be sure, other groups as well—who would otherwise benefit from policies that favor greater equality and opportunity.

The concept of grace comes from the Christian teaching that everyone, not just the deserving, is saved by God’s grace. Grace in the broader sense that I (an agnostic) am using, however, can be both secular and religious. In the simplest terms, it is about refusing to divide the world into camps of deserving and undeserving, as those on both the right and left are wont to do. It rejects an … [more]
victortanchen  meritocracy  2016  election  donaldtrump  capitalism  self-esteem  labor  work  culture  society  economics  losers  class  elitism  workingclass  hierarchy  richardsennett  jonathancobb  inequality  education  politics  competition  unions  status  grace  wealth  populism 
january 2017 by robertogreco
In Praise of Walks and Wilderness | Alpine Modern Editorial
"More full of wonder than your deepest dreams, indeed. I kept looking over to my friend, continually proclaiming: “I can’t believe how happy I am here.” I understood Abbey’s fierce ecological devotion to the place. Preservation begins with appreciation; it begins with experiential love. “Earn your turns,” a friend always calls out, strapping his skins to his skis and hoisting his body up the incline. Another pal takes off to the mountains when big life decisions loom in front of him: “It’s the only place quiet and still enough to think.” One hikes fourteeners to prove to himself that his body is capable of more than he believes and that what others say about him is not the whole story. One of my best friends may have hated the peak I dragged her up during our climb, but afterward she turned to me and sighed, “I’ve never felt more alive or more in love with my body.” Once, on a backpacking trip with high school senior girls, one turned excitedly to me and said, “I haven’t thought badly about my body this whole trip!” I think of my skis hanging over the ledge of Blue Sky Basin, my toes hurting like hell, my legs are tingling and frozen, and my flight-or-fight mode tells me that the drop in isn’t worth the potential outcome of pain. But when I look up at the snow-crested ridges against the deepest blue backdrop I’ve ever seen, I push on and fire up my legs, reminding myself that this view is worth the discomfort it takes to reach it."



"Ecologists speak now of a need for “deep ecology,” not just an understanding of ecological issues and piecemeal scientific responses, but an overhaul of our philosophical understanding of nature. Instead of viewing mankind as the overlord of nature, it’s about revisiting the idea that a give-and-take relationship exists between the human and the nonhuman, a relationship that thrives on mutual respect and appreciation. To develop this sort of appreciation for nature and the nonhuman, it matters that we actually experience it. For many ecological thinkers, walking among mountains can be the first step in healing a false split between body and mind. The grief at the destruction of a beautiful building, the ecstatic joy of a sunrise in the mountains—these moments stem from this unification of the two.

Fragile moments of being that exist in nature

It’s a question of place versus nonplace. In The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, Richard Sennett points to the peculiarity of the American sense of place: “that you are nowhere when you are alone with yourself.” Sennett speaks of cities as nonplaces, in which the person among the crowd slips into oblivion, only existing inside him- or herself. Other nonplaces look like the drudgery of terminals or waiting lines or places where all eyes are glued to phones. The buildings are uniform, and the faces blur together to create a boring conglomerate of civilization. If to be alone in a city is to be nowhere, the antithesis must be that to be alone in nature is to be everywhere. Nature is a place characterized by its “thisness,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes it—a place to enter into that is palpable with its own essence and feeling.

But as we lose our connection to place, as virtual reality turns here into nowhere, we lose our ability to narrate our experiences of nature. Recently, nature writer Robert Macfarlane pointed out that in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, the virtual and indoor are replacing the outdoor and natural, making them blasé. When we lose the language to describe our connection to landscape and place, we lose the actual connection to these things and the value decreases, separating us from the natural. According to Macfarlane, we have always been “name-callers, christeners,” always seeking language that registers the dramas of landscape, and the environmental movement must begin with a reawakening of natural wonder–inspired language.

Perhaps the point of all of this is to work to develop more refined attention, an ability to seek out and perceive fragile moments of being that exist in nature. We must pay attention to our breath and our bodies. Wendell Berry, a prophet of the natural, writes that to pay attention is to “stretch toward” a subject in aspiration, to come into its presence. To pay attention to mountains, we must come beneath them and reach out toward them.

To walk is to perceive

How do we begin? By wandering within the wilderness. Rebecca Solnit’s book on walking comes to mind: “Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.” While people today live in disconnected interiors, on foot in wilderness the whole world is connected to the individual. This form of investing in a place gives back; memories become seeded into places, giving them meaning and associations both in the body and the mind. Walking may take much longer, but this slowing down opens one up to new details, new possibilities.

Brian Teare is one of my favorite modern poets because his poetry is centered upon Charles Olson’s projective verse and on walking. All his works contain physical coordinates, anchoring each work of art to the place that inspired it. The land becomes the location, subject, and meaning to the thoughts and feelings that Teare wants to convey. As we enter into a field or crest the ridge of a mountain, we perceive the sight of the landscape and experience our bodies within it. We feel the wind and touch the dirt; we see the edges and diversity of the landscape. Perhaps we have hiked a far distance to reach this place and feel the journey within the body. Teare says in one of my favorite poems, “Atlas Peak”:

we have to hold it instead

in our heads & hands

which would seem impossible

except for how we remember

the trail in our feet, calves,

& thighs, our lungs’ thrust

upward; our eyes, which scan

trailside bracken for flowers;

& our minds, which recall

their names as best they can

Sitting on the side of Mount Massive, on the verge of tears, I felt utterly defeated. Our group took the shorter route, which had resulted in thousands of feet of incline in just a few miles, and my lungs, riddled with occasional asthma, were rejecting the task before them. It felt as if all the rocks in the boulder field had been placed upon my chest. My mind went to the thought of wilderness: Was it freedom or a curse? What would happen to me if something went wrong up here? Risk and freedom hold hands with each other in the mountains. After a long break, a few puffs of albuterol, water, and grit, I pulled myself up the final ascent and false summits along the ridge. I have been most thankful for my body when I have realized how beautifully fragile and simultaneously capable it is. On the summit, as we watched thin wispy waves of clouds weave into each other and rise around us, the mountain gently reminded me that I am not in control. I am not all-powerful, and nature’s lesson to me that morning was to respect its wildness.

As in all things, essentialism should be avoided. We live in a world that tends toward black-and-white perspectives, and when one praises the wilderness, those remarks can devolve into Luddite sentiments that are antipeople, antitechnological, and antihistorical. This solves nothing. Advancements in civilization are welcome and beautiful; technology has connected us in unprecedented ways. But as with anything, balance is key. We need the possibility of escape from civilization, even if we never indulge it. We need it to exist as an antithesis to the stresses of modern society. We need wilderness to serve as a place to realize that we exist in a tenuous balance with the world around us. All the political and societal struggles matter little if we have no environment to live in. In a world of utilitarian decision-making, a walk in the woods may be considered frivolous and useless, but it is necessary. The choice to preserve or to dominate is ours. But before deciding, perhaps one should first wander among the mountains."
nature  walking  wilderness  body  fragility  power  control  memory  luddism  decisionmaking  risk  freedom  technology  attention  brianteare  thinking  2016  hiking  robertmacfarlane  essence  feeling  feelings  vulnerability  gerardmanleyhopkins  nonplaces  urban  urbanism  escape  richardsennett  mind  spirit  life  living  mindbodyspirit  haleylittleton  andygoldsworthy  place  rebeccasolnit  wendellberry  walterbenjamin  outdoors  edwardabbey  ecology  environment  bodies 
june 2016 by robertogreco
The world wants more 'porous' cities – so why don't we build them? | Cities | The Guardian
"People of all classes, races and religions come and go in intense and complex Nehru Place. But while Delhi’s electronics market is every urbanist’s dream, it is not the sort of space most cities are building"



"Recently I tried to buy an iPhone in Nehru Place, an open-air electronics market in Delhi where goods that “happen to fall off a truck” are sold for 30%, 40% or 70% discounts – whatever cash you have handy. My iPhone turned out to a damaged dud, but I didn’t really care; the experience of going to Nehru Place was eye-opening. It’s a completely porous spot in the city, people of all castes, classes, races and religions coming and going, doing deals or gossiping about the small tech start-ups in the low offices which line the square; you can also worship at a small shrine if you’re so minded, or find a sari, or just lounge about drinking tea.

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no.

In Dresden, last year’s Pegida demonstrations against the Muslim presence in Germany turned out to be by people who don’t live anywhere near Muslims in the city; indeed, who know no Muslims. There again, in a study of several US cities, the American social scientist Robert Putnam’s researchers found that the farther away white Americans live from African Americans, the more tolerant they become.

Against this latter logic of separation stands Paris. The Islamic banlieus of Paris are separated from the centre by the ceinture, the ever-clogged ring-road around the inner city; so, too, in Brussel’s Molenbeek district, from which many terrorists come, is a disconnected island space. As the sociologist Willlaim Julius Wilson has shown, such physical islands breed an inward-looking mentality in which fantasy about others takes the place of fact bred of actual contact – as true, Wilson argues, of the black ghetto as it is of Christian Pegida.

I am uncomfortable about debates over separation and inclusion which move almost seamlessly to citing violent, extreme behaviour as evidence for or against. Which is why Nehru Place is a better example to think about this issue than Molenbeek. Everyday people are going about their business with others unlike themselves, people they don’t know or perhaps don’t like. There is what might be called the democracy of crime here, as Hindus and Muslims both sell illegal electronics; a wave of violence would clear off customers for both. Getting along in this way isn’t particular to India, or to open-air markets. Numerous studies show that in offices or factories that adults of different religions and races work perfectly well together, and the reason is not far to seek.

Work is not about affirming your identity; it’s about getting things done. The complexity of city life tends, in fact, to breed many identities for its citizens as workers, but also as spectators at sports events, as parents concerned about schooling or patients suffering from NHS cuts. Urban identities are porous in the sense that we are going in and out of lots of different experiences, in different places, with people we don’t know, in the course of a day. When pundits opine on the difficulty of difference, they flatten identity into a single image, just one experience. The modern economy can flatten identity when it sells people on the idea that gated, homogeneous communities are safe, (not true in fact), builds shopping centres only for shopping, or constructs office campuses and towers whose workers are sealed off from the city.

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

I don’t believe in design determinism, but I do believe that the physical environment should nurture the complexity of identity. That’s an abstract way to say that we know how to make the porous city; the time has come to make it."
cities  richardsennett  2015  urban  urbanism  porosity  nehruplace  delhi  india  complexity  sethalow  dresden  roberputnam  sociology  paris  brussels  molenbeek  williamjuliuswilson  christianpegida  race  religion  design  urbandesign  london  publicspace  flexibility  change  adaptability  crosspollination  diversity  markets  community 
november 2015 by robertogreco
002_2 : by hand
"“Fake humans generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them into forgeries of themselves.” (Dick, 1978)

“…the reign of things over life….exiles from immediacy” (Zerzan, 2008b:39, 40)

Verbs become nouns[1], nouns acquire monetary equivalents (Bookchin, 1974:50) and being is exchanged for having (Vaneigem, 1967:chpt8). We no longer ‘garden’ or ‘play’ or ‘cycle’ (or even ‘know’ (Steigler, 2010; Zerzan, 2008b:41). The world is arranged so that we need not experience it (Zerzan, 2008b:40) so that we consume the image of living (Zerzan, 2003). Places exist only through the words that evoke them; their mere mention sufficient to give pleasure to those who will never experience them (Auge, 1995:95). The city of the fully industrialized they[2] ‘have’ (call their own) gardens and green space and cycling tracks; private toys, asphalt playgrounds and indoor play centers on the roofs of department stores at 1000 yen an hour per child plus extra for ‘food’ and parking[3]. All which are made ‘for’ them and ‘paid for’ with taxes by polluting corpo-governmental free enterprise. This vocabulary weaves the tissue of habits, educates the gaze and informs the landscape (Auge, 1995:108) while diminishing richness and working against perception (Zerzan, 2008b:45).

Now, space is stated in terms of a commodity[4] and claims are made in terms of competition for scarce resources (see Illich, 1973:56). The actor becomes the consumer, who gambles for perceived nouns[5]. This is a problem, because experience is not simply passive nouns but implies the ability to learn from what one has undergone (Tuan, 1977:9) – the (biological) individuality of organismic space seems to lie in a certain continuity of process[6] and in the memory by the organism of the effects of its past development. This appears to hold also of its mental development (Wiener, 1954:96, 101-2, see also Buckminster-Fuller, 1970) in terms of use, flexibility, understanding, adaptation and give.

“[The] city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about [..] mental structure.” (Ai Wei Wei (2011)

Primary retention is formed in the passage of time, and constituted in its own passing. Becoming past, this retention is constituted in a secondary retention of memorial contents [souvenirs] which together form the woven threads of our memory [mémoire]. Tertiary retention is the mnemotechnical exteriorization of secondary retentions. Tertiary retentions constitute an intergenerational support of memory which, as material culture, precedes primary and secondary retentions. Flows, Grammes. This layer increases in complexity and density over the course of human history leading to increasingly analytical (discretized) recordings of the flows of primary and secondary retentions (e.g. writing, numeration). Use (movement, gesture, speech, etc, the flows of the sensory organs) is a flow; a continuous chain, and learning consists of producing secondary use retentions but discretization leads to automation – analytically reproducible use as tertiary retention resulting in retentional grains (grammes) – functionalization, and abstraction from a continuum (from ‘Primary retention’ Stiegler, 2010: 8-11, 19, 31). Memories of memories, generic memories[7]. Result: Ever more complete control over individuals and groups who are made to feel that they do not adequately understand themselves – that they are inadequate interpreters of their own experience of life and environment[8].

The exteriorization of memory is a loss of memory and knowledge (Stiegler, 2010:29) – a loss of the ability to dig deep[9] and venture forth into the unfamiliar, and to experiment with the elusive and the uncertain (Tuan, 1977:9). Nothing is left but language, and a persistent yearning arising from one’s absence from the real world; Reductive. Inarticulate. (Zerzan, 2008b:44-5)."
play  gardening  aiweiwei  ivanillich  christopheralexander  murraybookchin  anarchism  anarchy  life  living  jacquesellul  remkoolhaas  zizek  richardsennett  johnzerzan  raoulvaneigem  reality  consumerism  society  pleasure  gardens  space  bernardstiegler  marcaugé  flows  grammes  yi-futuan  sace  commoditization  experience  buckminsterfuller  flexibilty  understanding  adaptation 
october 2015 by robertogreco
CTheory.net: Conversations in Critical Making: 6 Critique and Making
"GH: What useful things can be taken from the concept of critical design as established by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby?

AG: Critical design is a bit silly. Designers have always been great at branding, and this is no exception. Design is a fundamentally critical process from the get-go. That's what the design process means. Design is an iterative process in which one revisits ideas, refashions them, recalibrates them, and produces multiple versions. That's why people say "everyone is a designer" today. We live in the age when everyone is a curator, everyone is a DJ, and everyone is a designer. We need to take seriously the notion that, whereas a generation ago critique was more or less outside mainstream life, today critique is absolutely coterminous with the mainstream. Hence a designer might engage with a so-called critical design project on Monday, but on Tuesday produce client work for IKEA. It's normal.

GH: Do you have the same response to speculative design?

AG: I'm interested in communism. And love. And darkness. I'm interested in smashing the state. And the total elimination of petroleum. I'm interested in the end of racism. I'm interested in the next 44 presidents being women--fair is fair! Speculation is mostly harmless, I suppose. But speculative thinking has been affiliated with idealist philosophy and bourgeois thought for so long--think of Marx's aversion to Hegel--that it's difficult for me to see much hope there. I've said it many times before: we don't have a speculation deficit; we have a motivation deficit. We should keep imagining new worlds, yes absolutely! But it's supplemental. Any child can tell you how to make the world just and fair and joyful. This is not to denigrate the creative work of Dunne and Raby, who are very talented at what they do. But rather to direct the focus where it should aim. The problem is not in our imagination. The problem is in our activity."
alexandergalloway  garnethertz  speculativedesign  criticaldesign  communism  motivation  capitalism  economics  makers  making  makermovement  2015  anthonydunne  fionaraby  dunne&raby  christopheralexander  geertlovink  matthewfuller  tizianaterranova  criticalartensemble  mckenziewark  guydebord  gilledeleuze  digitalculture  diy  culture  richardsennett  matthewcrawford  markfrauenfelder  phenomenology  karlmarx  kant 
august 2015 by robertogreco
The unhealthy underside of the wellbeing agenda
"Is it a mere coincidence that this trend booms at a time when the inescapable issue of the conference agenda is the staggering inequality in the world? In the 1970s Christopher Lasch claimed that in the wake of the political turmoil of the 1960s (the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal), many people had lost faith in politics, instead focusing on individual projects, such as “eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing” or “immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, and jogging”.

When people no longer believe in political transformation, an appealing alternative is individual transformation. When the world cannot be changed for the better, we put all our energies into improving ourselves.

Davos pre-recession

When the sociologist Richard Sennett visited the annual meeting in Davos in 1998, health and wellness were not on the agenda. After spending some time in conference rooms, champagne receptions and ski slopes, Sennett began to realise that the defining feature of the Davos men was their flexible nature. With this attitude, they would not look at tumultuous changes in life circumstances as a threat, but as an opportunity to be relished.

The “Davos man”, as Sennet calls him (no mention of a her), is someone who constantly reshapes their profile and rebrands their persona. They would not define themselves exclusively by what they do because they always work on more than one project. They could be discussing government policies and developing a new technology, while in the next moment, marketing catastrophe bonds, contemplating a pop music career and skiing high above the mountain resort.

This ability to live many lives at once and be uncertain about anything seemed to be underpinned by a capacity to let go of your past. If you were a state bureaucrat in the past, that didn’t matter. That was the past. What mattered was the latest technology or the newest innovation in the financial markets.

This flexible nature also made it easy to forget about the basic existential questions of the majority of people on earth. But the Davos man is not completely unaware of the bitter feelings this nurtures of the great mass of humanity living below the snow-line. According to Sennett, whenever the Davos man begins discussing the people who are “left behind”, they become distinctly uncomfortable and start fidgeting. Clearly they recognised the existence of the 99% who are not so comfortable with building their lives on the shifting quicksand of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Much has changed since Sennett ventured into the mountains in 1998. We have been through numerous financial meltdowns, an extended campaign of war in the middle east, a series of global uprisings against untrammeled globalisation, the overthrow of many dictators and much more.

A changing world

Just as the world has changed, so too has Davos. The elite who descend on the Magic Mountain no longer display an indifferent attitude, but radiate with compassion and purpose. At the meeting, social responsibility is at the top of the agenda. Shying away from the people who are “left behind” has also faded. Instead of nervous fidgeting, participants at the WEF put global inequality top of the agenda.
Yet how much of this talk is sincere and how much is it part of the participants convincing themselves that they are on the right side of history? Like Sennett’s Davos man, the new wellness men are concerned about their moral appearance. If being a flexible high-achiever was the aspiration then, now it is to be compassionate, healthy and spiritual.

Contemporary politics is getting taken over by the wellbeing agenda. This could have many upsides: who could argue against better healthcare, cleaner environments and more exercise? However, the way it is often used tends to turn away from these more structural issues and uses wellbeing as a badge of being a member of the new global elite.

To be a Davos man now does not just mean waxing lyrical about the powers of the free market – you also need to frequently check your steps on your fit-bit, spend some time in a mindfulness class, work out at the same time as you network, deal with global inequality and work out how market solutions like “pandemic bonds” might help to solve Ebola.

The ideal solution for bringing this altogether for our new nomadic elite is of course the latest management fad – the walking meeting. That way they can burn off the champagne, network and also build up steps on their pedometer, which will allow a child in Africa to have a new bicycle."
well-being  appearances  mindfulness  publicimage  davos  richardsennett  sincerity  compassion  morality  ethics  symbolism  politics  absolution  inequality 
january 2015 by robertogreco
Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us | Paul Verhaeghe | Comment is free | theguardian.com
"We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.

This description is, of course, a caricature taken to extremes. Nevertheless, the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.

More important, though, is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other, as thinkers from Hegel to Lacan have shown. Sennett comes to a similar conclusion when he sees the main question for employees these days as being “Who needs me?” For a growing group of people, the answer is: no one.

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping.

Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us."
neoliberalism  economics  politics  psycopathy  paulverhaeghe  2014  capitalism  ethics  behavior  identity  zygmuntbauman  power  freedom  meritocracy  responsibility  society  hegel  lacan  richardsennett  roberthare  impulsivity  markets  privatization  articulateness  boasting  personalbranding  lying  dishonesty  personality  bullying  parenting  priorities 
october 2014 by robertogreco
The Craftsman, the Trickster, and the Poet, by Edith Ackermann [.pdf]
"I suggest that art as a way of knowing is about “re-souling” the rational mind. This, in turn,occurs as a consequence of being mindfully engaged, playful in spirit, and disposed to usection—or the powers of myth—as windows into our inner and outer realities. Here, I of-fer a few thoughts on how people make sense of their experience, envision alternatives intheir minds, and most importantly, how they bring forth what they envision in ways thatcan move and inspire others (those at the receiving end of a creator’s oerings)."

[quoting: http://linkedith.kaywa.com/p138.html ]

"The craftsman, the trickster, and the poet are emblematic of the creative side in all of us: a deeply-felt reluctance to freeze the nuances of human experience into set categories, or representations, that rid themselves of the imaginal for the sake of proof or "reason". The artist sticks to the image. And that is why s/he captures our imagination. When art is "true", we know how to read between the lines! What the poet especially warns us against is to look at words as signs (instead of symbols, or indices),: “As we manipulate everyday words, we [shouldn’t] forget that they are fragments of ancient stories, that we are building our houses with broken pieces of sculptures and ruined statues of goad as the barbarians did” (Schultz, 1993. p. 88). The scientist instead is more of a Saussurian. He wants words to be signs, and he cringes when their meanings are “sticky” (fused to their contexts), “thick” (polysemic), or ambiguous (could be seen in more than one way). As for he rationalist in us: s/he wont seek to delight, amuse, or move us (spark insights). Instead, s/he’s here to reason, argue, and prove (provide evidence)!"

[video: http://www.exploratorium.edu/knowing/video.php?videoID=1241851064001 ]

[Edith Ackermann: http://web.media.mit.edu/~edith/ ]
poetry  poets  crafts  craftmanship  trickster  editchackermann  mindfulness  2011  art  artists  creativity  science  stickiness  reason  imagination  beginnersmind  neoteny  play  playfulness  richardsennett  ellenlanger  georgsimmel  jesters  clowns  bricolage  gastonbachelard  making  piaget  ernstcassirer  mending  tinkering  jeanpiaget 
march 2014 by robertogreco
Public space, civilization and the self (long) | Speedbird
[Read the whole thing, the pullquotes here are not enough, even though there are many of them.]

"Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords."



"Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities."



"Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces."



"Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way."



"Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole."



"Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups."



"civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances."



"Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so."



[My favorite part]

"Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.

I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.

But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.

So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.

Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.

We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this."



"In practice

Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?

• Learn about the legal status of public space in your municipality, particularly as regards the full measure of rights you enjoy there. Share that knowledge with others.

• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)

• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of public-space activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.

• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)

• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.

• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.

• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.

• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover."
adamgreenfield  urban  urbanism  civilization  cities  2013  self  cv  others  empathy  coexistence  urbanrights  canon  assembly  richardsennett  conviviality  mutualaid 
september 2013 by robertogreco
minimum force, corporeal anticipation |
“For it is Sennett’s contention that “nearly anyone can become a good craftsman” and that “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens.” This line of thought depends, among other things, upon the Enlightenment assumption that craft abilities are innate and widely distributed, and that, when rightly stimulated and trained, they allow craftsmen to become knowledgeable public persons.

And what is it that such persons know? They know how to negotiate between autonomy and authority (as one must in any workshop); how to work not against resistant forces but with them (as did the engineers who first drilled tunnels beneath the Thames); how to complete their tasks using “minimum force” (as do all chefs who must chop vegetables); how to meet people and things with sympathetic imagination (as does the glassblower whose “corporeal anticipation” lets her stay one step ahead of the molten glass); and above all they know how to play, for it is in play that we find “the origin of the dialogue the craftsman conducts with materials like clay and glass.”

The assumption that craft abilities are widely diffused leads Sennett into a meditation on our love of those intelligence tests by which we supposedly single out the very smart and the very stupid so that some will go to college and others go to bagging groceries. Sennett points out that such sorting ignores the “densely populated middle ground” where most of the population is actually found. Rather than celebrating a “common ground of talents,” we tend to inflate “small differences in degree into large differences in kind” and so legitimate existing systems of privilege. Thinking of the median as the mediocre creates an excuse for neglect. This is one reason, Sennett argues, that “it proves so hard to find charitable contributions to vocational schools” while currently the wealth of the Ivy League schools is compounding at an astounding rate.”

[from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/books/review/Hyde-t.html?pagewanted=all ]
crafy  autonomy  craftsmanship  richardsennett  authority  resistance  force  forces  minimumforce  imagination  sympathy  play  materials  making  middleground  talent  talents  privilege  mediocrity  median  vocationalschools  wealth  knowing  knowledge  understanding  enlightenment  sarahendren  citizenship  openstudioproject  glvo  lcproject  cv  corporealanticipation  learning  work  tcsnmy  progressiveeducation  elitism  2008  lewishyde 
march 2013 by robertogreco
Stranger Studies 101: Cities as Interaction Machines - Kio Stark - Technology - The Atlantic
"There are three broad themes during the semester.

1. Why stranger interactions in cities are meaningful

2. The spaces and the significance of the spaces in which strangers interact, and

3. How strangers 'read' each other, how they initiate interactions, how they avoid interactions, how they trust each other and how they fool each other, how they watch, listen and follow each other.

Then there is the secret theme. I want students to fall in love with talking to strangers, to do it more, and to make technology that creates more plentiful and meaningful interactions among strangers."
discovery  serendipity  interaction  darreno'donnell  thechildinthecity  publicspace  janejacobs  josephmassey  ireneebeattie  ervinggoffman  richardsennett  kurtiveson  cosmopolitanism  cities  nyc  gothamhandbook  sophiecalle  paulauster  relationalart  situationist  georgsimmel  rolandbarthes  strangers  2010  kiostark  collaboration  psychology  social  architecture  technology  culture  urban  urbanism 
march 2012 by robertogreco
Richard Sennett on Brittle and Open Cities | varnelis.net
"Starchitecture was the ultimate manifestation of the brittle city he describes. In breaking the rules formally, it produced the impression that cities were places of freedom when in fact they were getting more and more tightly controlled, more exclusive and more homogeneous. Who cares about a building by Herzog and de Meuron in Manhattan when you can't get a decent slice of pizza in most places anymore? Which is more valuable to a city, a Nouvel apartment building that testifies to the diversity of form or diversity of ethnicities and classes? " pdf here: http://www.urban-age.net/0_downloads/Berlin_Richard_Sennett_2006-The_Open_City.pdf
cities  diversity  starchitects  richardsennett  kazysvarnelis  opencities 
march 2009 by robertogreco
Richard Sennett on the meaning of craft
"Professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, Richard Sennett, talks about his new book, The Craftsman...first in trilogy about how we relate to people, objects, & the world around us when we make stuff. Listen to the full interview here."
interviews  books  towatch  richardsennett  craft  glvo  make  design  life  society  objects 
march 2008 by robertogreco

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